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Caste no bar
In 2008, Nandan Nilekani, then co-chairman of Infosys, had lamented to an audience at the Washington-based Peterson Institute of Economics, "There is not a single Dalit who has become an entrepreneur. " He was wrong, and he was right. He was wrong because two decades of economic reforms have unleashed entrepreneurial skills across the country, spawning businessmen and women from castes and groups that traditionally never ventured into the risky world of finance and enterprise. Constitutional measures for their political and social empowerment ensured that Dalits were not insulated from the changes taking place around them. While an Ambani or a Tata equivalent is a distant dream, some had the audacity of hope and have managed to build small business empires for themselves in sectors as diverse as manufacturing, hospitality and real estate.
But Nilekani was also right. Success stories from Dalit communities and groups are few and far between. For every Dalit who has crashed through the barriers of social discrimination and poverty to join the ever-growing tribe of entrepreneurs, there are lakhs who still bear the cross of their history. According to government figures, nearly two-thirds of the 16 per cent Dalits in the country are landless or own such small holdings that it makes them as good as landless. They neither have meaningful employment, nor income generating assets of their own. Shrinking rural space is depriving them of their traditional caste occupations, while by the government's own admission, as stated in the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the urban labour market offers little relief because of the "prevalence of discrimination by caste".
The achievements of those who have clawed their way out of these grim statistics are, therefore, remarkable. Few as they may be, there are Dalit entrepreneurs who today boast of annual turnovers of over Rs 50 crore. Some are expanding rapidly and expect to generate between Rs 100-200 crore over the next couple of years, once their new projects are up and running. Like others in business, they too own expensive cars, party at five-star hotels and rub shoulders with a Birla or a Munjal on occasion. If Mayawati is a symbol of Dalit political empowerment, these entrepreneurs are aspirational figures of economic mobility far removed from the fractious world of quotas and reservations.
It was not easy to locate them. Given their small numbers and with no readily available database to consult, despite a plethora of activist organisations and a full-fledged National SC/ST Commission, finding Dalit entrepreneurs was like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. Some, like Kamalakar Mukund, proprietor of the Pune-based Suryatech Solar System that manufactures and supplies solar water heating system parts, have dropped their caste name to avoid identification. Others prefer to remain invisible, like their forefathers. The owner of a Rs 50 crore-plus food and packaged drinking water business in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, keeps a low profile, fearing perhaps that his products will be shunned because of his caste, though his drinking water carries a certificate of purity from the World Health Organisation. Scars left by centuries of social prejudice run deep and just one generation of wealth and success cannot erase them.
Like first generation entrepreneurs of other castes, Dalits are dabbling in all kinds of nontraditional businesses far removed from historical occupations like leather tanning and shoe making. Hari Kishan Pippal may have started out life as a cobbler, but today he also runs a swank multi-speciality hospital in Agra that employs 175 doctors. Two others, 33-year old Harsh Bhasker and 26-year old Mohan Pradeep, have ventured to shatter another glass ceiling by moving into education. They run coaching institutes for engineering and science subjects in the Taj Mahal town, and Bhasker has plans to set up an engineering college in Meerut. Perhaps because this is Mayawati country or perhaps because they belong to a new generation of educated, upwardly mobile Dalits, neither is apologetic about his background. "I never thought of myself as inferior to anyone. I compete in the open market, "Bhasker says. Pradeep echoes his sentiment: "I don't hide my caste. If somebody asks, I have no hesitation in revealing my identity."
The process may be slow and scattered, but the social and economic profile of Dalits, particularly those in urban areas, is changing. The 61st round of the National Sample Survey in 2004-05 found that as many as 29 per cent of urban SC households were selfemployed. That's not an insignificant number, points out Surinder S Jodhka, professor of sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Sadly, no organisation in India has cared to fully map the winds of change blowing through these communities. It is ironic that an American university should be the first to commission a detailed research on the growth of Dalit entrepreneurship in India. Social psychologist and Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad is carrying out the survey on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania's Centre for the Advanced Study of India. He has already dug out 100-odd crorepati entrepreneurs in the four states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab, and is now travelling in south India to locate others who have taken advantage of the new economy to dump dead-end menial jobs and wipe out the quota stigma. Says Prasad, "They are all doing well. Each one is worth at least Rs 1 crore and some much more than that."
Yet, these fragments of good news should not in any way introduce a sense of complacency. Behind every successful Dalit entrepreneur is a poignant story of hardship and struggle common to all members of marginalised communities. Jodhka, who produced a paper on the experiences of Dalit entrepreneurs in Panipat (Haryana), and Saharanpur (UP), for the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, says the two biggest hurdles for an enterprising businessman from these groups are the lack of financial resources and the absence of community networks through which they can operate and grow.
"In our country, business has traditionally been controlled by certain communities. They help each other access capital, supplies and markets. Marginalised groups do not have this kind of support system. They also don't have collateral, like land, that can help them raise money to start a business, " he says.
D Shyam Babu, who specialises in Dalit issues and is a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, concurs. "Traditional business communities not only have assets, they also inherit entrepreneurial knowledge and culture accumulated over generations, " he says, adding that he firmly believes entrepreneurship is the way forward for Dalits in a market in which the private sector is growing rapidly while government jobs, with their constitutionally defined quotas for SCs, expand at a much slower rate.
It's certainly a way of moving up the socio-economic ladder. As Jodhka pointed out, reservations have performed their role by producing a Dalit middle class. "Now we have a large mass of people who are agitated, restless and aspirational. They are no longer competing within their community. They measure themselves against other caste groups, " he says.
Parallely, even as opportunities are opening up for them, the experience of discrimination is probably becoming sharper as they compete for a share of the pie. Consequently, they still need government assistance, but of a different kind. Jodhka feels that the government must recast its policies to address the changing aspirations of Dalits by encouraging entrepreneurship. His suggestions: easier access to capital through state support, a quota for government purchases so that Dalit entrepreneurs have a ready market and identification of sectors they can enter and flourish without hindrance.
However, the government can help only up to a point. Shyam Babu maintains that, ultimately, the initiative to encourage Dalits to go into business must come from within the community itself, from the many self-help and activists groups that have sprung up as awareness has grown. "Once Dalits realise that they can do business, a mental block will have been removed. Attitudinal change is very important, " he emphasised.
Pune-based builder Milind Kamble is perhaps the first person to take a step in this direction. In 2005, he set up the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce to provide a platform for Dalit entrepreneurs in Maharashtra. It already boasts of 200 members and is hoping to set up associate chapters in other states. On June 4 this year, the DICCI will hold in Pune the first-ever expo to showcase businesses run by Dalits and their products. "We are also arranging interactions with leading non-Dalit businessmen and representatives from the banking sector and the government. I hope this will help develop confidence among Dalit businessmen, " Kamble says.
Babu is confident it will. "The expo will be an eye-opener. People will see what Dalits are capable of, " he declares.
(WITH INPUTS FROM AVIJIT GHOSH)
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